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Virtual meeting of NATO Chiefs of Defence December 2021 – © Nato

“NATO’s relationship with Ukraine is going to be decided by the 30 NATO allies and no-one else. We cannot accept that Moscow is trying to re-establish a system where great powers like Russia have their spheres of influence within which they can control what countries can or cannot do. […] We will not compromise on the right of every nation in Europe to choose its own destiny.”

Strong words indeed, by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on 10 December 2021, when he firmly opposed any interference by Russia in relations between the Atlantic Alliance and Ukraine. He also refused to exclude a possible membership of Kiev, as demanded by Moscow.

Nothing predisposed this 62-year-old economist to become the head of the world’s most powerful military alliance. And yet, Jens Stoltenberg began his career in radical anti-NATO circles, before becoming a champion of consensus. In fact, the former social-democratic Prime Minister of Norway, a country with a pacifist tradition, had never shown a particular penchant for defence and security issues.

In the 1970s, the long-haired teenager stoned the U.S. embassy in Oslo to protest the war in Vietnam. But it was under his leadership that, a decade later, the Workers’ Youth League dropped its call for Norway to leave NATO.

Much later, after becoming a minister, he also protested against French nuclear tests in the Pacific by participating in an Oslo-Paris cycling relay in 1995.

Jens Stoltenberg holds a postgraduate degree in Economics from the University of Oslo. After graduating in 1987, he held a research post at the National Statistical Institute of Norway, before embarking on a career in Norwegian politics.

Born into a family steeped in politics, he became a Member of Parliament in 1991 and then Minister of Energy and Finance. In 2000, just after his 41st birthday, he became the youngest head of a Norwegian government. He held this position only briefly, but returned to it from 2005 to 2013.

Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg (Norway) © Wikimedia/Bjoertvedt

Under its aegis, the Nordic kingdom participated in the war in Afghanistan and in air strikes against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.

Norway, a country where a pacifist tradition goes hand in hand with an Atlanticist culture is, thanks to its oil wealth, one of the few members of the Alliance to increase its defence budget when the others are slashing theirs.

The ten years he spent at the head of various governments in Oslo provided him with a rich international address book and a consummate art of negotiation.

Discreet and composed, carefully weighing his words, Jens Stoltenberg contrasted his arrival at the head of the Alliance in Brussels in October 2014 with his predecessor, the Dane Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was adept at strong words against Russia.

According to Norwegian media, it was former German Chancellor Angela Merkel who launched his candidacy for the head of NATO, which quickly garnered the support of US President Barack Obama.

NOT A HAWK

During his long political career, Jens Stoltenberg – the first NATO Secretary General to come from a country bordering Russia – has moreover established good relations with Moscow, particularly with Vladimir Putin. This was an important asset for managing the most frosty relations between the Alliance and Moscow since the end of the Cold War, due to the Ukrainian crisis.

Prime Minister of Norway Jens Stoltenberg and Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2006 © Kremlin.ru

Since the annexation of Crimea and the offensive launched by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014, NATO has nevertheless, under his leadership, begun a profound transformation in the face of a Russia deemed “more aggressive.”

“We have seen a Russia that has invested heavily in defence for many years, acquiring modern capabilities, conventional and nuclear forces, and has shown that it wants to use force against neighbouring countries,” he observed recently.

“NATO has been able to respond. We are constantly adapting,” he insisted, referring to the deployment of battalions in the Baltic States and Poland or the efforts undertaken by the Alliance to be more reactive and better equipped in case of crisis.

President Donald Trump & NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House in April 2017 © White House

However, no one in Brussels considers him a “hawk”, as Jens Stoltenberg, in this period of tension, tirelessly defends the need to combine a “dialogue” with Moscow, to “avoid misunderstandings”, with the reinforced “dissuasion” that has been in the works for seven years.

He had to respond to another challenge, perhaps even more serious, when the Atlantic Alliance – historically dominated by the United States – was curtly called into question by former US president Donald Trump, who bluntly demanded that his European and Canadian allies increase their military budgets.

Not to mention the complicated relations with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey since the aborted military putsch of July 2016. Turkey is considered a pillar of NATO on its southern flank, it has the Alliance’s second largest army and is a regional Muslim power.

But experienced in difficult negotiations, he is a master in the art of compromise, to the point that some accuse him of shunning confrontation; notwithstanding, the Allies renewed their confidence in him until 2022.

NO NATO MEMBERSHIP FOR UKRAINE IN THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE

The Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly demanded that NATO “formally” withdraw a 2008 decision opening the door to membership for Ukraine and Georgia, which Moscow categorically opposes. During a meeting on 7 December with his American counterpart Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded “legal guarantees” excluding the possibility of Ukraine joining the Alliance.

Accusing the West of having betrayed its promise at the end of the Cold War not to expand NATO to the east, Moscow keeps reminding them of its red lines. Russia points out that Ukraine is getting dangerously close to them by deploying Turkish-made military drones, reaffirming its ambition to join NATO and demanding more Western weapons.

Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov meets with NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2014

However, Washington and the Europeans have repeatedly made it clear that Ukrainian membership of the Atlantic Alliance is not yet on the cards. These words have naturally annoyed Kiev greatly.

“President Biden told me, and said publicly, that it was not up to the Americans, Russia or the members of the Alliance, but to the Ukrainian citizens alone to make the choice of joining NATO,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview on national television 1+1.

“Unfortunately, he failed to add that the decision [on Kiev’s membership in NATO] does not ultimately belong to Ukrainian citizens, but to all those countries I just named! We want to continue our path towards NATO, but an invisible wall is blocking us,” he lamented.

For his part, the new German chancellor Olaf Scholz, on his first visit to Brussels expressed Germany’s “deep concern” about the Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine, calling on the EU to “maintain its firmness” against Moscow.

And again, while addressing the Bundestag, “These days, we are watching with great concern the security situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border.”

“We will discuss this intensively at the European Council and the Eastern Partnership Summit” of the European Union on Wednesday, 15 December”, he added.

“Let me, if everyone has not yet understood, repeat here what my predecessor (Angela Merkel) said: any violation of territorial integrity will have a price, a high price,” Scholz argued, while fears of invasion by Moscow troops are growing.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg © Nato

Together with French President Emmanuel Macron, whom he had also met earlier that day in Paris, they showed their willingness to continue Franco-German mediation in the Ukrainian crisis, an initiative described by Olaf Scholz as a “positive basis.”

The British Foreign Secretary has also warned Russia of severe consequences if it attacked Ukraine. Liz Truss made the remarks before welcoming G7 counterparts to a week-end long meeting in the English port city of Liverpool on 11 December 2021.

Truss hoped the group of the world’s richest democracies could show a united front against Russia, “If Russia were to take that action, it would be a strategic mistake and there would be severe consequences for Russia. And what we’re doing this week-end is working with like-minded allies to spell this out.”

The Kremlin, of course rejects these accusations and insists on the contrary that Russia is threatened by NATO which is arming Kiev and multiplying the deployment of air and sea assets in the Black Sea region.

NATO : THE BIRTH OF A STRATEGIC ALLIANCE

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was created in April 1949 by the Treaty of Washington as a military and political alliance to pool the military capabilities of Canada and the United States on the American side of the Atlantic Ocean and those of Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom on the European side.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson signs the Washington Treaty, April 4, 1949. President Harry Truman and Vice President Alben Barkley are standing next to him © Nara

However, the Alliance’s North Atlantic identity was challenged when Greece and Turkey joined in the first enlargement in 1952. This made it clear that the logic behind the defensive alliance was not only regional but also geopolitical, as Greece and Turkey were far from the Atlantic but in strategic positions with respect to the Soviet Union (USSR). The Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO in 1955 and Spain in 1982.

During the Cold War, the Alliance’s main function was to ensure the collective defence of its members against the threat posed by the Eastern Bloc military alliance: the USSR, and then from 1955 onwards the Warsaw Pact.

Between 1949 and 1991, when the USSR disappeared and the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, NATO played its role perfectly, despite some political crises and internal tensions linked to the sharing of responsibilities.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visits the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command at Camp Morehead © Nato

During the decades 1990-2010, NATO sought to adapt its missions to the new global geopolitical situation. It thus adopted in 1991, 1999 and 2010, three elements of fundamental doctrine and orientation of the defence policies of the member states of the Alliance, known as ‘Strategic Concepts’.

After 1991, NATO reoriented its role towards the promotion of democracy, individual freedoms and the rule of law. This functional logic, already an integral part of the Washington Treaty (Article 2), led to the three successive enlargements of 1999-2009, but also to a relative weakening of NATO’s military functions.

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the deployment of Alliance forces in Afghanistan alongside the United States led to the belief that NATO could become a security organisation with universal competence. However, some member states, such as Germany and France, opposed the idea of a global NATO and advocated a return to the organisation’s original role as a defensive military alliance.

THE WEAKENING OF THE WEST AND THE RUSSIAN-UKRAINIAN CONFLICT

Budget cuts and the maintenance of contingents in foreign operations (Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa), which were aimed at preventing the triumph of insurrectionary movements, have had the effect of weakening the conventional defence capabilities of a majority of Western countries.

Moreover, the focus on peacekeeping operations in the Balkans (IFOR, SFOR, KFOR) or peacebuilding operations such as in Afghanistan (ISAF) led to the adoption, in November 2010, of a Strategic Concept that reiterated the importance of collective defence while putting crisis management and cooperative security “beyond the borders” of the Alliance in the forefront.

It identified ballistic missile proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, extremism and terrorism, cyber-attacks, risks to communications channels, and environmental problems as key international security issues.

However, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in the spring of 2014 is of a different nature, as it involves a major power using methods or tactics typically employed by insurgents in guerrilla warfare.

This recent development, where non-state movements such as the Lebanese Hezbollah use sophisticated technologies (drones, missiles), has led to the development of the concept of hybrid warfare which also underlines the fact that powerful states could adopt indirect tactics to counter the military and technological superiority of the United States and its allies.

Russian tactics in Crimea and eastern Ukraine fit neatly into this concept of hybrid warfare.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visiting the frontline positions of the Ukrainian army in the area of the Joint Forces Operation in Donbas © president.gov.ua

Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the use of asymmetric or hybrid warfare tactics by the Russian military in the eastern part of Ukraine presented a new type of challenge to the Atlantic Alliance.

Hybrid warfare combines different modes of combat including conventional weapons (tanks, missiles), irregular tactics and formations (guerrilla type) and terrorist or criminal actions aimed at creating disorder. Propaganda is also used to foster patriotic fervour and fanaticism.

During the Cold War, NATO countries invested the financial resources necessary for their armed forces to deal with the conventional and nuclear threat of the Warsaw Pact.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013 © Kremlin.ru

After 1991, the majority of these same countries, whose public finances were in deficit, made significant cuts in their military budgets while sometimes participating in “out-of-area” missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan or Iraq.

But from the mid-2000s, Vladimir Putin’s Russia launched a programme to modernise its armed forces. This situation of growing military imbalance between Moscow and the European states, coupled with a lack of cohesion among the latter as well as Barack Obama’s ambiguous attitude towards American involvement in European security, prompted Vladimir Putin to launch an offensive against Ukraine, beginning in March 2014.

A number of political analysts believe that without this imbalance, despite the so-called Maidan Square protest movement, followed by the overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia would probably not have taken the decision to invade its neighbour.

ALLIANCE COHESION IN QUESTION

Another element may have prompted President Putin to invade Crimea and later launch his troops into Ukraine.

Since the mid-1990s, Western countries have intervened in various parts of the world in the name of humanitarian interventionism. But these operations have not always been perceived positively by non-Western public opinion and governments.

The intervention in Libya in March 2011, for example, was the one that probably had the most negative impact. The United States, France and Great Britain, after having indirectly obtained the consent of China and Russia at the United Nations Security Council (these two countries abstained from voting on the launch of air strikes to protect the civilian population in danger), went beyond Resolution 1973 by contributing to the overthrow of the dictatorial regime of strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

This episode marked a turning point in international relations.

Following the intervention in Libya, Moscow and Beijing felt cheated by the West, accusing it of having respected neither international law nor Security Council resolutions.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict of 2014 has had the effect of putting the cohesion and solidarity within the Atlantic Alliance to a severe test. While this internal crisis is not the first, some political analysts have voiced the concern that it could prove decisive and call into question the very existence of the Alliance.

Previous crises include the Franco-British intervention against Egypt (the Suez crisis) in November 1956, the withdrawal of France from the integrated command in 1966-1967, the deployment of Euromissiles (Pershing and cruise missiles) in 1983, and the intervention in Afghanistan (starting in 2001), which led to institutional schizophrenia due to the opposition within the organisation between two visions of NATO’s role and future: a global NATO versus a defensive North Atlantic Alliance.

THE 1938 SUDETEN CRISIS REVISITED ?

Despite the passage of 76 years, the invasion of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent annexation by Russia, as well as the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine present a number of troubling similarities with the German Sudetenland crisis.

From left to right: Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano before signing the Munich Agreement © Nrf

On 29 September 1938, at the initiative of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his French counterpart, Edouard Daladier met with Adolf Hitler in Munich for a final attempt at conciliation on the Sudetenland crisis.

In the early hours of the morning, faced with the threat of war, Daladier and Chamberlain gave in to the Führer’s demands and accepted the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the annexation of the Sudetenland by Germany.

The Sudetenland question, that part of Czechoslovakia populated by a German majority, had become explosive since Adolf Hitler came to power. Supported by the Nazis, the Sudeten Germans demanded autonomy and put forward other demands, which Prague could not satisfy. After remilitarising the Rhineland, then annexing Austria in 1938, Hitler demanded that the Sudetenland become part of the Third Reich.

Great Britain and France, although linked to the Czechs by a defense treaty, wanted to avoid an alliance with the Soviet Union and opted for a policy of appeasement towards Germany. But despite the efforts of the British Prime Minister, Berlin conceded nothing; war seemed inevitable.

At the last moment, in Munich, the democracies backed down again and handed over Czechoslovakia to the Führer in the hope of maintaining peace in the West. When they returned, Daladier and Chamberlain, were acclaimed by the waiting crowd, convinced that the Munich Agreement had saved Europe from war. In France, only the communist parliamentarians refused to ratify Hitler’s diktat, while in England it was the conservative Winston Churchill who spoke out against Munich. One year later, Germany invaded Poland and started the Second World War.

CRIMEA ANNEXATION : A CHALLENGE TO THE EUROPEAN SECURITY SYSTEM

Of course, Vladimir Putin is not Hitler, Russia is not Nazi Germany and the world does not face the same apocalyptic scenario that unfolded in 1939. But today, Russia has launched the same genuine and serious challenge to the European security system. The destruction of the state of Austria and Czechoslovakia at that time marked the beginning of the destruction of the European system in general. The occupation of Crimea and attempts to split Ukraine is a challenge for Europe. This crisis is not only about the Ukrainian issue; it is about the future of Europe as it was conceived.

Adolf Hitler with his troops in Franzensbad Sudetenland © Bundesarchiv

In terms of comparisons, the most obvious is the presence of an expatriate majority in the occupied zone. Russians make up some 60% of Crimea’s 2 million inhabitants, and many are more closely connected to their “motherland” than to Ukraine. Similarly, the 3 million Sudeten Germans felt much more loyalty to Germany than to Czechoslovakia, and the majority agreed to be incorporated into the Third Reich.

And Putin’s pretext for the occupation and annexation seems to be more or less the same as Hitler’s; that is, to protect the local population. Until recently, Putin had showed little interest in Crimean affairs, except to renew the lease of the Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol.

But since the Ukrainian revolution, the alleged vulnerability of the local Russian population to “fascists” has become an iconic issue – and an excuse for Russian military intervention. Hitler used a similar pretext to demand the transfer of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia.

Many in Moscow, including Vladimir Putin himself consider that there is no real Ukrainian nation, referring to it as part of the “Russian world”. For Hitler, Czechoslovakia was also an unnatural assortment of divergent nations and regions.

This represents a real danger. During the clashes in Ukraine, Putin failed to maintain the pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych in power and it was after this failure that Russia attacked Crimea. Except that the occupation of Crimea did not change the policy of the new Ukrainian authorities. Thus, Moscow is trying to destabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine and each defeat inspires the next escalation.

Hitler’s aim was to destroy Czechoslovakia. Six months after separating from the Sudetenland, he abrogated the Munich Agreement by occupying all of Bohemia and Moravia and making the Czech lands a German protectorate, while installing a puppet regime in a nominally independent Slovakia.

Russian Invasion of Crimea in 2014 © David B. Miller, Cartographer,Emc

If Putin has similar intentions, having already annexed Crimea, he will want to ensure there is a direct military presence in eastern Ukraine where Russian troops are massing on the border, and eventually go for some kind of partition in the longer term.

THE WEST AND NATO : THE URGENT NEED TO ACT

Western leaders seem to be presenting a united front in anticipation of the Biden-Putin talks. But will actions stand behind words ?

The threat of war in Ukraine can only worry Europeans, who will be the first to be affected in the event of a conflict. Ukraine borders Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland and it is a traditional transit country for Russian gas which is an important source of supply for Western Europe.

However, there is no consensus on the likelihood of a large-scale Russian attack on Ukraine. The fact that Russia is displaying its forces, maneuvering up to 100,000 troops according to some estimates, seems to be more a prelude to a negotiation than a preparation for war, from which neither side could really win.

The Europeans have widely expressed their concern on the mobilisation of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border. They have not, however, drawn the direct conclusion that an invasion of Ukraine is imminent.

From this point of view, there seems to be a discrepancy in apprehensions between the American and European positions. It should be remembered that we were in a similar situation last June and that the Russians had finally withdrawn their troops following direct contact between the American and Russian presidents.

Moreover, there is in all this an element of bluff where an error of evaluation or an accident is always possible; this could lead the parties involved beyond what could have been foreseen at the outset.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Jens Stoltenberg © Nato

Washington has already refined its strategy in the event of a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, expected by some observers in January or February 2022. It is hoping to achieve this by combining support for the Ukrainian army, strong economic sanctions and strengthening NATO’s regional capabilities.

For their part, the Europeans have reaffirmed the need to defend Ukrainian sovereignty, but will not send more troops than NATO. On the other hand, it can be estimated that they will take their full part in a range of economic sanctions. On this occasion, the political orientation of the new German coalition will be tested, with a line of action that will be determined by Chancellor Olaf Scholz but probably tempered by a Foreign Minister from the ranks of the Greens, who are generally harder on Russia.

In passing, on the side of the signatories, it is striking to observe the presence of the United Kingdom, which is no longer a member of the EU, but above all the exclusion of Poland, a country known for its hardline positions on Russia, and which is therefore not among the signatories, despite its detailed knowledge of the region. The Polish leaders are undoubtedly paying for the hostile attitude of the current government towards the EU.

It is important to note that none of the western parties have mentioned the possibility of a military response to an invasion of Ukraine, and though the Biden administration has made it clear that there will be a strong response, it will be limited to the area of economic sanctions.

Finally, we witnessed that with regard to the invasion of Georgia in 2008 as well as the annexation of Crimea, NATO remained silent.

However this does not prevent the Americans from helping the Ukrainian armed forces to equip themselves. But here too, much caution is called for.

CONCRETE ACTION IS CALLED FOR

So, faced with Moscow’s aggressiveness, manipulations and provocations, how should and can NATO react ? The economic sanctions against Russia voted by the member states of NATO and the European Union will take time to be effective.

Moreover, while they may have an effect on the Russian economy, they probably will not impress Vladimir Putin. To compensate for the slow pace of sanctions, some military experts as well as analysts at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) are of the opinion that the Atlantic Alliance should focus on a graduated response over time by taking immediate and long-term military measures, ensuring that it reviews its doctrinal, economic and political foundations by returning to a doctrine based on collective defence rather than all-out collective security, urging member states to respect minimum requirements in terms of defence investments and reiterating its commitment to ensuring the defence of all its members.

US Army Capt. Aaron Baumgartner, an advisor with Task Force Juvigny, talks to his Armed Forces Ukraine partner during battalion training at the Combat Training Center – Yavoriv, Ukraine in 2019

Doctrinally, the Alliance should perhaps revise its latest Strategic Concept to put the security of North America and Europe back at the heart of its collective defence posture.

Given Vladimir Putin’s insistence on the importance of nuclear weapons in his arsenal, NATO should review the potential function of tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. Finally, the next Strategic Concept should seek to develop a set of measures to effectively respond to Russia’s methods of asymmetric and hybrid warfare (use of the media for propaganda purposes, deployment of unidentified soldiers, and provision of sophisticated weapons to “surrogates” in target countries).

As immediate measures to send a message of firmness to Vladimir Putin, NATO could consider deploying ground troops supported by air and naval assets (Baltic and Black Seas) and organising joint maneuvers with its member states located near Russia.

Military aid, through the sending of equipment to non-member states that request it should also be considered. These measures would be the only ones capable of demonstrating the seriousness of NATO’s response to Russia’s attempts at destabilisation and of reassuring the most vulnerable of its member states.

Zapad 2021 exercises took place simultaneously on 14 fields stretching from the Baltic Sea to parts of Russia in Central Asia, from September 10 to 16, 2021. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Zapad 2021 was necessary in response to NATO activities near the borders of Russia and its allies.

Since the Alliance does not have its own material resources, only the member states can decide to provide aid to Ukraine in the event of the presence on its soil of destabilising elements of the “little green men” type, such as those who were deployed in Crimea and eastern Ukraine and who bore no sign of identification. These elements were in all likelihood members of Russian special forces as well as the Wagner Group, a so-called ‘private military contractor’ that sends mercenaries – with the Kremlin’s blessings – to various conflict zones to defend Russian interests.

Some NATO members such as Estonia and Latvia announced at one point that they would take drastic measures and shoot these unidentified soldiers in order to put them out of action before they have time to take over cities and territories as they did in eastern Ukraine.

As a matter of fact, the presence of Alliance troops, especially in the Baltic States, could influence the behaviour of the Russian minorities in these states in the event of an attempt at destabilisation by Russia.

Moscow’s propaganda has been very active for months in Moldova and the Baltic States. Latvia would certainly be a prime target for Vladimir Putin. Russian media have already begun to hammer home the point that the Russian-speaking minority – large in this small country of two million – is being discriminated against. NATO’s presence would not only send a clear signal to Moscow but also to possible local agitators and indicate that destabilisation of Latvia or any other Alliance member country would not be as easy as it has been in Crimea or eastern Ukraine.

OPTIONS FOR A EUROPEAN RESPONSE

As far as Europe is concerned, military intervention is probably out of the question.

To intervene militarily, it would first be necessary to have a classical offensive in due form (and not a hybrid conflict), and a strategy for the defence of Europe.

However, even if the Ukrainian population feels deeply European, Ukraine is neither part of NATO nor of the EU. The solidarity clauses foreseen in case of an attack cannot therefore be applied (Article 5 in the framework of NATO), even though Europeans cannot and will not be indifferent to the fate of Ukraine.

Baltic Batallion with NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg during NATO exercise Trident Juncture © Nato

Paradoxically, one does not hear much of Russia’s discourse, which mentions the purchase of Turkish-made drones by Ukraine, the growing presence of the NATO fleet in the Black Sea and the presence of American bombers a few kilometers from the Russian border, as being the reason for the maneuvers it is currently carrying out.

Nor even its suspicions of a Ukrainian offensive in the Donbas, which in its current state seems to be a largely fake threat. Yet these representations of the threat must also be taken into account, even if we do not share them.

In short, it is economic sanctions that will be at the heart of the European response.

Basically, it is quite clear that the prospect of Ukraine’s integration into NATO is unacceptable to Russia. As a reminder, the invasion of Georgia took place against the backdrop of the Georgian demand for NATO integration, and we only know too well what the result was.

In a recent interview with France Télévisions, the French public broadcast service, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, replying to a question regarding a possible accession of Ukraine to NATO said, “That would be the worst possible scenario…it’s a scenario that would go beyond the red lines that have been set with regard to Russia’s national interests, and it’s a scenario that will oblige Russia to take active measures to ensure its security…in other words, a military offensive.”

So, this question should be taken very seriously. It should also be taken into account that by insisting, the Ukrainians are running a risk that is all the more unnecessary. For one thing, their defence systems and capabilities are, according to western experts still far from the standards required for NATO certification.

The prudent course of action would therefore be to accept a status of military neutrality that does not prevent Ukraine from continuing to make the reforms that are necessary for its rapprochement with the European Union. However, this is probably easier said than done, given the status of Crimea, the situation in the Donbas as well as other areas of discord.

In the event of an invasion, the first measures will probably be targeted sanctions, painless for the general population. If it were necessary to go further, one of the possible strong responses of the United States could be to cut Russia off from the SWIFT financial information exchange system, forcing it to do without the dollar in its transactions. This may inflict heavy financial damage on many influential economic actors in Russia, prompting moderation.

But the danger is that in the long run, this might push Russia to seek, together with China, to establish its own financial system, thus undermining the authority of the United States in this area.

President Vladimir Putin joining military units of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. Troop contingents from the armed forces of Armenia, Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia cooperated in carrying out drills to repel a simulated enemy attack © Kremlin.ru

Also, it should not be forgotten that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would result in a very large number of casualties on both sides and it is necessary to know whether what remains of public opinion in Russia is ready for such a sacrifice…nothing is more uncertain.

At the political level, NATO could experience an unprecedented crisis if its members fail to agree on the policy to adopt vis à vis Moscow.

France’s sale of technologically advanced ships to Russia for purely offensive purposes, such as the Mistral-class assault ship in 2010, as well as the contracts signed by Berlin and Moscow to build the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to bypass Ukraine and Poland, can undermine trust between NATO members and European Union member states.

For example, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, fearing possible negative effects on their economies, have opposed sanctions against Moscow. These internal divisions naturally make Vladimir Putin’s task easier.

The Alliance should strive to assert a clear and coherent position through the adoption of a convincing defensive doctrine and the development or maintenance of military capabilities appropriate to the threat.

According to the theses defended by certain Western researchers and specialists, the West should stop reacting to Putin with “shock and awe” – shock that he can act with such apparent impunity, and awe at what it perceives as tactical genius. Europe and the United States have far greater influence and resources than Russia, with its atrophied political system and exhausted economic model. What they seem to lack is the willingness to accept the economic and political costs of defending the values they claim to stand for.

Finally, Western leaders and particularly Europeans must recognise that appeasement cannot guarantee peace and stability in Europe – not even under the guise of “engagement”.

When dealing with a leader whose credo is defined by the notion that “the weak are defeated,” Western governments must show resolve, without sacrificing flexibility.

Only on this basis can the crisis in Ukraine be addressed, without fundamentally compromising transatlantic security.

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